The price of freedom …

9 April 2010

Written by: Lawrie Zion

Without trying to sound overly patriotic, we Australians are a pretty lucky bunch. Our public education system is one of the greatest in the world, our economy is one of the strongest in the world, and our national life expectancy is one of the highest in the world.

We aren’t embroiled in a decades-long turf war, we aren’t likely to get killed while voting in a federal election and our news isn’t exclusively supplied by a government-owned agency. Furthermore, HIV/AIDS affects far less than 11% of our population, we have nowhere near 70% of our number living below the poverty line and members of our gay community aren’t at a significant risk of being killed as a result of their sexuality.

Despite all of these factors, there are still those that believe that life in Australia is far from perfect.

One such detractor is a regular customer at my place of employment – an extremely friendly and opinionated gentleman who frequently regales us with his vision of a less than perfect world. In his eyes, the concepts of democracy and personal freedom are both completely misunderstood by citizens of the first world. That is, we think we are ‘free’ but in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. His argument runs something like this;

As members of a capitalist society our collective livelihood depends on our ability to cultivate personal wealth. If we aren’t making money then we will struggle to live and function as members of our society and as a result, a significant portion of our adult lives are dedicated to the accumulation of wealth.

To play down the significance of money in our society is to fundamentally misunderstand the nature of our society. In this way, those who suggest that ‘money isn’t everything’ and that ‘money can’t buy you happiness’ are either completely naive or have significantly less wealth than they would like. Sure, it’s possible to be happy without owning an island in the Pacific, but how many people would be less happy if they happened to win Tattslotto?

To paraphrase my friendly interlocutor, any claims to personal freedom in our democratic society are undermined by the workings of the capitalist machine. We have no choice but to spend our lives earning money just so that we can get by in this world and, worst of all, we do so willingly.

As bleak as his line of reasoning is, my opinionated acquaintance seems to have made a fairly good point. One need only imagine living without a cent to one’s name in order to grasp the enormity of our love affair with money.

But of course this sort of argument is far from original. Groups like Socialist Alternative have been channelling the spirits of Engels and Marx for decades now, claiming to ‘lead the fight against capitalism and bring the working classes to power’. The conspicuous absence of a working-class revolution in recent times would seem to suggest that Socialist Alternative et al. still have plenty of work ahead of them.

But if we are talking about ambitious attempts to drastically alter the make-up of Western society, we need look no further than works of Jacque Fresco and the so-called Venus Project.

The Venus Project came to greatest prominence through the documentary/conspiracy theory films of Peter Joseph, his 2007 effort Zeitgeist and the 2008 sequel, Zeitgeist: Addendum. In the first film Joseph posits a rather sinister and, as some have argued, rather flimsy connection between Christianity, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the Federal Reserve System in the US. The following film sees Joseph, among other things, arguing for a complete overhaul of modern society in order to combat the great evils of the world. This overhaul goes by the name of The Venus Project, an endeavour which ‘presents a bold, new direction for humanity that entails nothing less than the total redesign of our culture’.

Successfully integrated, The Venus Project will confront issues such as ‘unemployment, violent crime, replacement of humans by technology, over-population and a decline in the Earth’s ecosystems’.

It sounds like an ambitious undertaking, and it is. At the core of The Venus Project is the desire to replace capitalism with a so-called ‘Resource-Based Economy’. Where capitalism sees privately owned ‘goods and resources traded in markets’ in an attempt to generate profit, a resource-based economy ‘is a system in which all goods are available without the use of money’.

Under this proposed system, all of the world’s resources would be ‘held as the common heritage of all of Earth’s people’, allowing a high standard of living. With the decline of big business and the ‘bottom line’, technology could be developed with the sole purpose of increasing the standard of living for people the world over. The development of Evacuated Tube Transport (ETT) as a viable means of improving personal transport is one example of the advances that should be possible under a new system.

But let’s be realistic here. As comforting as it is to think that there might be an alternative to spending our lives in jobs that we hate, a socio-economic change of the magnitude forecast by The Venus Project is virtually impossible. Sure, 50 million people might have seen the first Zeitgeist film but it’s going to take a lot more than that to convince billionaire bankers to give up their fortunes in order to preserve the future of humanity.

For some utopian model like The Venus Project to take hold, it will take many lifetimes of focused campaigning and gradual change. And if that’s true, what hope is there for us, the tiny cogs in the massive capitalist machine that currently holds sway? What can we do in the meantime?

Well, we could do worse than to work in jobs that we enjoy.  At least that way our lack of freedom is partially enjoyable …

Matt de Neef is one of upstart’s co-editors. This piece first appeared on his blog, A Cursory Glance…